Virginia lawmakers vote to limit use of chokeholds by police, but reject outright ban

Virginia lawmakers vote to limit use of chokeholds by police, but reject outright ban
Police on Capitol Square at dawn stand alongside fencing set up to corral attendees of a large pro-gun rally in January. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The General Assembly sent a bill establishing rules for how police officers use chokeholds to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk Wednesday after the Senate rejected a blanket ban on the maneuver and felony penalties proposed by lawmakers in the House of Delegates.

The legislation, introduced in response to the death of George Floyd under the knee of an officer in Minneapolis, stipulates that police may only use neck restraints in cases where it “is immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person.”

Democrats in the House expressed disappointment they couldn’t reach a compromise with the Senate on a stronger prohibition, warning the final version will allow police to continue to use the tactic in many cases.

“An officer could say almost anything was necessary,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. “It’s so open ended and broad.”

Foy proposed the House version of the bill, which would have made any use of a chokehold by police a Class 6 felony. It cleared the chamber last month on a 55-43 vote, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans unanimously opposing.

But lawmakers in the Senate, where Democrats also have a majority, rejected the approach, arguing police should be allowed to use neck restraints as a last resort and that it was unnecessary to create a new felony charge.

Under the Senate’s version, police who use chokeholds in situations where they don’t believe it’s immediately necessary would face administrative penalties, including the loss of their license to work as a sworn officer.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, argued that strangulation is already a felony and that in many cases it would be harder to pursue criminal charges than administrative penalties in cases of wrongdoing. And he said that while the House’s proposed ban sounds stronger than the Senate’s language, there would be no practical difference because common law establishes a right to self defense, meaning an officer could use a chokehold when they believe it’s necessary to protect themselves regardless of any prohibition to the contrary.

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